By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 1, 2010; 9:39 PM
BAGHDAD - The worshipers heard the first shots and explosions about 20 minutes after the beginning of Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Church.
Heads turned, the sermon stopped abruptly and the Rev. Wassem Sabeeh quietly began ushering parishioners into a fortified room in the rear of the church.
"We realized these explosions were close," said Bassam Sami, 21, one of the survivors of the attack on a Baghdad church carried out by heavily armed suicide bombers that left at least 58 people dead. "Father Wassem started pushing people inside the room."
Once they penetrated the church building, the silent assailants began executing people. "They were well trained," Sami said. "They didn't say anything. It was like someone had cut out their tongues."
The carnage that unfolded during the next few hours outraged many in a city that has seen more than its share of bloodshed. The siege suggested that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the weakened Sunni insurgent group that asserted responsibility for the attack, remains capable of carrying out mass-casualty operations.
The target, an Assyrian Christian church in the upscale Karrada neighborhood, was highly unusual. The extremist group has in the past year directed its dwindling resources toward crippling symbols of the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
An Iraqi official said Monday that investigators had found at the scene three Yemeni and two Egyptian passports thought to have belonged to the suicide bombers. If confirmed, the finding would be alarming to U.S. and Iraqi officials because they say al-Qaeda in Iraq has struggled to recruit foreign fighters in recent years.
In a statement posted on the Internet early Monday, the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the attack.
It said the attackers were motivated by the reported abduction of Muslim women by Catholic Church officials in Egypt. The statement appeared to allude to the disappearance of the wife of a Coptic Church priest in Cairo. Muslim protesters in the Egyptian capital have accused church officials of abducting the woman after she voluntarily converted to Islam.
Church officials have denied the allegation. The case has received heavy media coverage in Egypt, where Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the population. Clashes between Muslims and Christians have erupted there sporadically in recent years.
Before Monday, the controversy had gone largely unnoticed in Iraq, where most headlines these days are about stalled negotiations to form a government after the March 7 parliamentary elections.
It is not clear why the assailants chose to make the prominent Iraqi church a battleground in the case of the missing woman.
Witnesses and authorities provided the following account of the attack:
The gunmen drove up to the church by way of a quiet street where, according to residents, authorities in recent days had removed cement barriers to open the way to traffic. The assailants, dressed in khaki pants and armed with AK-47 assault rifles, grenades and suicide vests, parked a gray Dodge sport-utility vehicle near the rear of the church.
When they began tossing bags across a seven-foot wall that rings the church, guards at a nearby branch of the Baghdad stock exchange became alarmed. A gunfight broke out, leaving two exchange guards dead.
The attackers detonated explosives that were in the vehicle, making nearby windows crack.
A second blast thundered near the rear door of the church, ramming it open. Some officials said a grenade caused the explosion, while others suggested the trigger was a suicide vest.
Sabeeh, the priest, was among the first people executed after the assailants got inside. Another priest, Thaer Abdullah, was also killed.
Throngs of Iraqi authorities gathered outside the church as U.S. military helicopters hovered overhead.
Inside the church, about 60 parishioners were huddled in the safe room, praying and crying, when one of the assailants tossed a grenade inside, Sami said.
"There was unbelievable fear among the people," he said. "I cannot describe what we've been through."
Shortly after 9 p.m., after realizing that hostages had been executed, a team of U.S.-trained Iraqi commandos stormed into the church from all sides. At least five suicide bombers detonated explosives, killing seven of the troops.
U.S. officials said the Iraqis realized the operation was risky but deemed it necessary in light of the loss of life that took place during the early phase of the siege.
"They responded out of necessity," a U.S. official briefed on the operation said Monday. "There was a real possibility that they would have killed all the hostages inside."
Members of the Assyrian church stood outside Monday morning and wept as they stared at the building's blood-streaked walls. Most of the church's windows were shattered, as were plaques from graves in the church's outer patio.
"We have nothing left here," Juloud Peshtu said as she stood outside. "We are the minority. We cannot defend ourselves. We cannot stay in this country anymore."
Amjed Majeed, who lives across the street from the church, watched as senior Iraqi government officials, trailed by heavily armed men, walked in and out of the church.
"No one came here to ask us how we're doing," he said angrily, standing outside his now-windowless two-story house. "No one asked how the children are doing. No one came to offer us compensation."
Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.